Here are the 10 matchups to look for in Sunday’s AFC championship game between the Patriots and the Ravens at Gillette Stadium:
The Patriots' no-huddle against the Ravens' desire to slow the game down: As we detailed here, New England has utilized the no-huddle effectively on a consistent basis throughout the season. Including their win over the Broncos in last week’s divisional playoffs, the Patriots have been in no-huddle on 24 percent of their snaps this year. New England wants to get into a shootout and have the score up in the thirties. Meanwhile, the Ravens have a veteran, battle-tested defense, but have almost no experience against a no-huddle offense this season, and would love to slow the game down as much as possible and turn it into a slugfest that ends up in the teens or twenties. According to NFL gamebooks, Baltimore has faced a no-huddle set on 56 of its 1,002 defensive snaps on the regular season. (Five teams didn’t run a single snap in the no-huddle, while only two teams were able to hit double figures -- Indianapolis, which ran no huddle on 15 of its 57 snaps, and Pittsburgh, which went no-huddle on 11 of its 58 snaps.) And of those, none of the teams that Baltimore faced ran it as part of anything other than an end-of-half or end-of-game scenario.
The Patriots running game against the Baltimore run defense: Powered by Terrence Cody and Haloti Ngata, the Ravens are the second-ranked run defense in the league (they allowed just 93 yards a game on the season, trailing only San Francisco). But the Patriots will be looking to spread the field against Baltimore, forcing the Ravens to try and defend sideline-to-sideline. If they can force the Ravens into nickel and dime packages on a consistent basis with a minimum of defensive linemen, there will almost certainly be opportunities for the Patriots’ running backs. One guy to watch will be rookie running back Stevan Ridley, who has been getting more reps lately but fumbled in the divisional playoff win over the Broncos. It was probably not coincidental that he saw a drastic reduction in his playing time following the turnover.
Tom Brady against Terrell Suggs: The Ravens' best pass rusher and the Patriots quarterback have a relatively good-natured trash-talking relationship that dates back a few seasons. (Suggs has called him “pretty boy,” as well as “the nephew of God,” a nod to a recent Saturday Night Live skit in which “Jesus” revealed that Brady is God’s nephew. In return, Brady has returned fire by saying that Suggs and the Ravens talk a lot for having beaten New England once in nine years.) But if New England wants to improve its chances of winning, Brady has to stay as far away as possible from Suggs, who has 25 sacks the last two seasons for Baltimore. Expect the Patriots to slide their coverage toward Suggs. That could mean using an extra tackle as a tight end in hopes of containing Suggs off the edge.
Wes Welker against Lardarius Webb: One of the key matchups for the Ravens. If they can succeed with Webb against Welker in single coverage, that will open up other possibilities for their other defenders in the passing game when it comes to slowing down some of the other options for New England, including Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and Deion Branch. While there are plenty of other big names on the Baltimore defense, Webb, in his first full year as a starter for the Ravens, led the team in interceptions with five. A 5-foot-10, 182-pounder out of Nicholls State, the 26-year-old grades out as Baltimore’s best defender in pass coverage, according to Pro Football Focus.
Rob Gronkowski/Aaron Hernandez against Jameel McClain/Bernard Pollard/Ed Reed: We say the same thing about Gronkowski every week -- too big to be covered by a defensive back and too fast to be covered by a linebacker. So this week against the Ravens, when it comes to trying to slow down Gronkowski, it’ll likely be a group effort. The teams that have done well this year in slowing down Gronkowski have used zone coverages with multiple defenders, and the two best options for Baltimore remain McClain and Pollard, two of Baltimore’s primary defenders against opposing tight ends. (Expect a healthy dose of Reed mixed in as well, particularly against Hernandez.) The combination of coverage has worked for the Ravens -- as Nuggetpalooza notes, Baltimore hasn’t allowed 100-plus receiving yards to opposing tight ends in the last 69 games. That stat will be put to the test against New England’s combination of Gronkowski and Hernandez, who, according to one NFC scout, will be the difference Sunday.
New England’s offensive line against the Baltimore defensive front: For the Patriots to be successful, they have to keep Brady upright on a consistent basis. The two biggest threats to the quarterback’s health and well-being come from up the middle with Ngata and Suggs off the edge. While the Patriots will try and protect the quarterback off the edge with an extra tackle as a tight end (it’s been a very good season for tackles Matt Light and Nate Solder), the real test will come up when Ngata goes against Patriots center Dan Connolly. It’s absolutely integral that the interior of New England’s offensive line (Brian Waters, Connolly and Logan Mankins) hold up against Ngata and fellow defensive lineman Terrence Cody. If Ngata and Cody win those individual battles and manage to get consistent pressure on Brady, it could throw a wrench into the New England passing game.
Jerod Mayo/Brandon Spikes against Ray Rice: The No. 1 matchup for the New England defense. If the Patriots can contain Rice throughout the afternoon, they will slow down the Ravens’ primary offensive option. (Rice leads the team in rushing with 291 carries for 1,364 yards and 12 touchdowns, while he also has a team-high 76 receptions for 704 yards and three touchdowns.) If the New England defensive line can occupy enough spaces up front against Baltimore’s occasionally suspect offensive line, that should free things up for Spikes and Mayo to make plays against Rice, either at the line of scrimmage or in the backfield. However, if Rice gets a head of steam and is able to bust past Mayo or Spikes (or avoid them altogether), it could result in lots of chunk yards for Baltimore’s bowling ball of a running back, which would be bad news for New England.
Rob Ninkovich/Mark Anderson against Bryant McKinnie: No Patriots defender has played better and more consistently over the last month than Ninkovich. Whether it’s been working as a defensive end rushing the passer or setting the edge as an outside linebacker, he’s become critical to the success of the New England defense. (For more on the job he’s done lately, check out our story on him here.) Anderson started the year as a pure pass rusher, but since Andre Carter went down with a calf injury last month that landed him on injured reserve, he has seen more snaps in running situations. Both figure to spend lots of time lined up across from Ravens left tackle Bryant McKinnie, who is average when it comes to pass blocking (Pro Football Focus has him at a +0.8).
Devin McCourty against Anquan Boldin: This will be a battle on multiple levels -- McCourty will likely line up at corner opposite Boldin on first- and second-down situations, trying to slow down Baltimore’s primary threat in the passing game (57 receptions, 887 yards, 15.6 yards per reception). On third down and other passing situations, McCourty will almost certainly drop into the role of deep safety, a spot he’s occupied on many occasions over the last two games. (On those occasions, expect Patrick Chung to drop down and help out in coverage on Boldin from the “star” position.) If New England can neutralize Baltimore’s deep threat with a minimum number of defenders, it will allow them to present a combination of looks when it comes to getting after Rice and quarterback Joe Flacco.
The Patriots’ specialists against the Ravens’ returners: In our scout’s take this week, he praised the work of New England punter Zoltan Mesko, who has been able to do a very good job setting up the Patriots’ defense with some favorable field position, especially over the second half of the season (he set a franchise record with a 46.5-yard average). Mesko is punting as well as anyone in the game right now, and (as if you needed any remembering) he was a huge key for New England in its’ 23-20 overtime win over Baltimore last year. (For what it’s worth, Baltimore punter Sam Koch is almost as good as Mesko this season.) While the Patriots’ returners haven’t reinvented the position, their coverage units on both kickoffs and punts have also done well, and have a considerable edge on the Ravens. As for the overall importance of special teams in a playoff game, it might not seem like much on the surface, but after the botched fake punt attempt in last year’s playoff loss to the Jets, the Patriots know better than anyone that a special teams letdown in a playoff game can sink your chances.